Bruce Picken still remembers the goal. He was a Gordie Howe fan in southern Ontario, and he wanted to see the big man play one more time. After all, Howe was 42 years old. He couldn’t play forever, could he?
Picken lived in Hamilton, between Toronto and Buffalo, the new city in the National Hockey League in 1970-71. Tickets were easier to score in Buffalo, so Picken, then 20, crossed the border and saw a goal he can still re-create.
Howe performed in what now seems like a prehistoric age – there were six teams in the NHL for much of his career and interest in hockey was mostly confined to Canada and a few states near the 49th parallel north.
Fans of a certain age sometimes talk about Howe the way others do about sporting deities they were lucky enough to see back in the day – Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova in a Grand Slam final, Sandy Koufax or Roberto Clemente going around the league one last time, Dr. J defying gravity above the rim, Jim Brown trudging back to the huddle. If you’re smart, you take a mental image, the way Picken did. Luminaries like Howe do not come around every day.
Part of Howe’s legend is his No. 9. One Ontario kid would never wear it as a professional, choosing instead No. 99 in homage to his boyhood hero. The photo of the powerful Howe poking the blade of his stick into the mop of hair and prominent ears of a young Wayne Gretzky is one of the great relics of their sport, of any sport. Howe is often considered to be the greatest No. 9 in any North American sport (Ted Williams is second in my rankings).
Picken has been a steady email correspondent for a decade or so, enriching me about his loves: hockey, Canada, Japan, birds and waterfalls. He is a friend I have never met.
With the awe for hockey that Canadians possess as a birthright, Picken recalled spotting Howe in public once, in Hamilton in 1965, while a bystander to an argument over whose greatness was greater: Howe or Maurice Richard.
“He was a passenger in a convertible going to Dundas for some banquet,” Picken said. “Amazing, because I was 15 and in the back seat of the car with my father driving with a friend of his. They were, literally, arguing over who was better.”
He continued: “I looked over and saw Howe. I said, ‘God, there’s Howe in the car next to us.’ They thought I was kidding.”
People talked about Gordie Howe with reverence, long before he died this week at the age of 88. Sightings of legendary figures either confirm our image of them – or destroy it. The celebrity as primo jerk; we all have our stories.
“I knew a guy from The Toronto Star who picked him up at Pearson airport in Toronto about 25 years ago for some function,” Picken recalled. “He said Howe was incredible. Humble, appreciative and modest.”
That is the highest praise a Canadian can lavish on a great athlete from the True North Strong and Free. Humble, appreciative and modest – even if he played across the border in Detroit. The mighty right wing was one of the fastest skaters in the league. And he was a good guy. It’s the legend of Gordie Howe.
“I bought the ticket well in advance,” Picken continued in his email, “but was having a fit because he’d been hurt – wrist or rib cartilage – and had missed a bunch of games.” The Red Wings were playing at Buffalo on Dec. 27 and Howe was back, on a line with Alex Delvecchio and Frank Mahovlich.
“I saw him do two things I’ve never seen before or since,” Picken said.
“He was at the right side of the net on a power play and started to shoot the puck,” Picken recalled. “Joe Daley was in net for the Sabres. Howe saw he couldn’t score because of the angle, so he switched from his right-hand shot to his left hand and fired the puck into the far side of the net – left handed.”
Hockey sticks are slightly curved, to enable the player to better control the puck. By suddenly switching grips, from left hand on top to right hand on top, Howe had given up some power and control, but he furnished surprise, as well as hand-eye coordination and power, backed up by an ability to either skate over a defender or flit around him. Mickey Mantle could bunt. Michael Jordan could flick a game-winning pass. Like that.
“There was stunned silence, and suddenly the entire crowd went, ‘Oohhhhhh' at the same time,” Picken recalled of the fans from Buffalo and Ontario.
The other play Picken remembered was a penalty kill: “He had the puck and was standing at the blue line. Two Sabres came rushing at him, and he never moved his feet. However, he moved his stick a certain way, and both skated past him. I have no idea what he did.”
Grace and power and will. At 42. The Red Wings lost that game, and a week later got beat by the Maple Leafs, 13-0, and eventually finished last in the East Division. Howe played 63 games, had 23 goals and 29 assists, and retired at the end of the season – that is, his first retirement. He rested for two seasons, joined the World Hockey Association for six seasons and then roared back into the NHL for a final season, this time with the Hartford Whalers in 1979-80, and scored 15 goals as he aged from 51 to 52.
After that, he was a living icon of his sport, popping up at hockey events – a throwback, an ambassador, carrying the aura of one of the greatest stars, but true to the code of modesty.
I recall being at one Stanley Cup finals – Montreal? New Jersey? Philadelphia? – and spotting Howe in a coffee shop, and asking him a few questions while he waited for a spot at the counter. He was a gentleman, although not to the opponents he popped.
Some fans like Bruce Picken talk with reverence about Gordie Howe as the greatest hockey player ever. Let’s put it this way: They are entitled.